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Though separated by thousands of miles, Myaser Semat, a teenage girl studying in Urumqi, capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, and Guo Rongbo, a teenager in East China's

Shanghai, have become friends by simply exchanging letters.

The two share secrets and discuss their favorite books, movie stars and cartoons.

From Guo's letters, Semat, of No 92 Middle School in Urumqi, learned of Shanghai's bustling commercial center of Lujiazui and developed a dream of one day studying in the metropolis.

The pair started their pen pal friendship in July 2014, when the Communist Youth League launched a program matching students in Xinjiang with youngsters in other Chinese provinces and regions.

The CYL said on Wednesday that 2.8 million students from 7,338 primary and middle schools around China have been involved in the program, which is designed to encourage the use of Mandarin and to promote cultural understanding.

"Do you know Xinjiang has a butterfly valley?" one primary school student from Xinjiang's Altay prefecture wrote to his pen pal in Jiamusi in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

Aynur Mahset, secretary of Xinjiang's regional CYL committee, said students are encouraged to share information on ethnic festivals, culture and activities in their letters, and pen pals are also in touch with each other through more modern tools such as social messaging services like WeChat.

One year after the program was launched in Xinjiang, it was extended to Tibet, another remote part of China where many people don't speak Mandarin. According to the CYL, 27,500 students from 570 primary schools in Tibet have established pen pal ties with 189,500 students from 725 schools in 17 provinces and municipalities. By November, about 559,600 letters had been posted out of Xinjiang and Tibet.

Last year, the CYL also sponsored 52 summer camps in 17 provinces and municipalities as opportunities for the pen pals to meet.

Although living in the same city of Urumqi, Aliman of the Uygur ethnic group and Wang Litong of the Han group, both sixth-graders, got to know each other by writing letters as part of the CYL program. During Spring Festival this week, Aliman visited Wang and brought her a Chinese knot and couplets on red paper as gifts.

Aliman said she knew Han people celebrated the festival with such decorations, but she didn't know their meaning.

China conducts bilingual education in Xinjiang and Tibet, enabling students to study both their native language and Mandarin. Promoting Mandarin, the official language of China, is meant to enhance mutual understanding and open career opportunities for members of ethnic groups in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Cui Jia contributed to this story.

(China Daily USA 02/12/2016 page3)